Ashwin Purohit

Essays & Articles

The Benefits of “No”

“No” is the most liberating thing you can say. It prunes your tree of decisions, and purifies your thoughts. It directs your efforts, through absence.

To be able to use “no” effectively, you have to know what you want to say “yes” to. Only you can decide that. I want to be creative and productive during my life, to maintain my pride, and to honor my relationships. This is what I want. All of the following is about saying “no” to things that blow me off this course.

Some things I can say “no” to easily. “No” to a street hawker, “no” with lifted eyebrows to a misbehaving dog or child, to a pimp selling a girl for the night (a question I’ve been asked an unreasonable number of times), or to covering a friend while he graffitis a wall.

But it’s hard for me to say “no” to the real devils: experiences that drain my time under the promise of a better self. Before I explain, let me show you how liberating it is to practice “no”.

Time sinks

The psychologist Meg Jay speaks of capital in The Defining Decade. That is, non-monetary capital. Capital you accumulate by devoting time to things that pay off later.

Saying “no” to a time sink is personal. One man’s waste of time is another man’s pride. If you say “no” to what you consider a waste of time, you gain precious hours on this planet.

My experience has written me the following rule:

Say “no” to what immobilizes you longer than an hour.

What break this rule are mental escapes involving televisions and computers and drugs that mollify your brain. They’re useful occasionally. They are dangerous when habitual.

The opportunity cost of having these habits is high. You lose one-hundred percent of what you do mindlessly, what you could invest into intellectual capital that pays off into real skills later in life.

See if you physically struggle to do something for more than an hour in one sitting. Real work, the kind that taxes your brain and strengthens a skill that will pay off later in life, makes you tired around that mark. Your brain overheats and you feel an itch to go walk around, brew some tea, talk to someone, or take a nap.

All good signs you’re doing something worthwhile.

Time sinks allow you to sit, to consume and be consumed. They distance you from the person you want to become.

You never get these hours back.

Uneven friendships

Say “no” to people who don’t match your effort in a relationship. Sooner, not later.

I have learned painfully to say “no.” I have a good friend, who is a flake. He sometimes shows, and sometimes doesn’t. In the past, I’d sigh and say, “Okay, I guess next week would work,” or, “Sure, I guess we can go there instead.”

Not anymore. This disrespects you. It betrays your expectations. It devalues the time you have set aside and the opportunities you forwent. It trashes your right to be taken seriously. You’re not a dog: you do not sit when told “sit,” come when told “come,” and you sure as hell shouldn’t be tugged every which way because you’re on a leash labelled, “but he’s my friend.”

If you have trouble saying “no,” I understand. Even at a neural level. If your friend sometimes bails, and sometimes doesn’t, you’re succumbing to “operant conditioning with random reinforcement.” That’s an animal behavior jargon for the following phenomenon: when given treats randomly and denied treats randomly, instead of becoming exasperated, mammals like us just want them more.

More than if the treats were given to us consistently, at regular intervals. It’s the same principle that keeps people looking for three cherries on a slot machine. You win sometimes, and lose other times, and you can never know when, so you keep playing.

So you may be a rat or the elder casino addict. I was. It was difficult for me to break away and say “no” to this friend who bailed sometimes and had a great time with me other times. But, I resolved to change that. Last year on a trip, my unsteady friend asked me to set aside some time to hang out.

This time, I promised nothing. “I cannot commit to that” became the phrase du jour. He was surprised. I even felt guilty. But I told myself to remember that time is my most precious resource. I chose to give respect to my own time, and was liberated. Others will respect your time if you respect your own.

I went on the trip with no expectations. I had a blast with other friends, who had paid a fair rate for time: mine for theirs; no more, no less. I did end up hanging out with my fickle friend, only after I got a believable promise that he’d show. He did, and we both had a great time.

Withered friendships

Another hard “no” is to friends who expect returns on investments in relationships they haven’t made. This won’t happen to you until you’re years out of college, when, as people like to say, “life happens,” and you move away, and you walk other paths.

The truth is, friendships aren’t forever. They take work. The exception is the people like your blood brothers, who you could count on two hands. You’ll do anything for them. But I’m talking about the majority of your friends.

After I graduated, an old schoolmate ignored contact for many years, though I tried. One day, I received a wedding invitation in the mail. This happens a lot in your late twenties.

What to do? I could chalk it up to having other things to do. I could have attended the wedding. Inaction here seems vengeful and in poor taste for a friendship. After all, you don’t punish friends.

Then I realized this was a false premise. Instead of listening to his words, I should hear his actions. He hadn’t considered it worth the time to water the friendship every now and again. It died from neglect. So, what fruit was there to pick?

Don’t view it as an act of punishment. It’s just your part in the natural course of things. You have been lowered on their priority list, and you in turn should rearrange yours.

Yes, with a weekend to kill, I could have flown to the wedding. It’d cost me a thousand dollars and all of my time. I’d probably have a decent time.

But you don’t build a habit of respecting your own time by kowtowing to the slightest pang of guilt. Argos, the dog of antiquity, waited patiently, twenty years for his master. I am not Argos.

“It’s your good friend from so many years ago, why not make him happy?” Tell me: where was he for years when he could have exchanged a single phone call?

It’s not as if I’d never see him again. If we lived near each other, we’d probably hang out. But extraordinary efforts require extraordinary relationships.

It’s easy to cave. It’s easy to rationalize caving. It’s hard to say “no.” Have a backbone. Do nothing from of an obligation of friendship: your friend didn’t. Do things because they better the relationship.

Working

Friends aren’t the only people who will pull your time. Your work will, too. If you signed up for a job like consultant, investment banker, sales, or a job where constant, abnormally long hours are part-and-parcel of the work, this advice doesn’t apply to you. You’ve your choice.

But, if you start a job assuming you’ll work normal hours, your boss might try to squeeze labor from you. You’re the lemon, and your boss’s lemon-press is built from an alloy of paycheck, guilt, demand, animal perks like grass-fed beef and free massages, and the promise of completing a grand mission.

And so you work fairly in return. But be careful: not more. Do not be awake and ready to serve at all hours. “There’s this one little thing you’ve got to do, you see, so could you should stay a bit later tonight? And maybe tomorrow, too? We have to get this thing done,” your boss will ask.

If that happens more than once a month, it’s time to say “no” early and firmly to work abuse. You don’t want to give your colleagues or boss the expectation that you will be forever at their beck and call. This would condition them to feel little remorse for taxing you, and in return they’ll just keep doing it.

My friend, a lawyer, started promptly acting on a string of his boss’s 3AM phone calls for “urgent” help. Do you think that his boss – whose job, remember, is to maximize the employee productivity – increased or decreased the phone calls he made at 3AM?

Increased, severely. Now his boss’s colleagues also bombard him with phone calls in the dead of night. They’re overjoyed to have such a dedicated employee. “Do you answer them all?” I ask him. “Yeah,” he says, with his eyes downcast. “It’s … not so bad.”

Learn this bit of negotiation theory from Chester Karrass’s In Business As In Life:

If concessions are small and grudgingly given, [the other party] is likely to be pleased because they will feel that little was left on the table.

This is true of your time. Because it’s so valuable to you, don’t give it freely. Your employer will in turn value your own time more.

The second reason to draw boundaries for your time is that you are more efficient with a sprinkling of time pressure. If you tell yourself, “No, I will leave work at 5pm every day, no matter what,” or, “No, I will not allow myself to work on this for longer than a month,” your work will be better. You are forcing yourself into constraints from which will emerge diamonds.

I know many students who work counter to this rule, on their dissertations who manage to take years longer than they need, simply because they don’t say “no” when they should set working boundaries.

People’s time behaves like a gas, expanding to fill its container. But with too large a container, that is, far too much time to get something done, what results is procrastination and mediocre output. It’s only true of creative work. Heed Leonard Bernstein, who knew a thing or two about creativity:

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.

Say “no” to languishing.

Sleeping

Nobody in this world cares about your sleep. Not your friends, not your partner, not your child. After you turn thirteen, every day for the rest of your life the world conspires to steal it from you.

Good sleep is your stash of gold to guard. Ample sleep is, after you have food, the foremost factor in maintaining your health, sanity, and productivity. Read Dement’s Sleep and Dreams and then take it up with evolution, if you disagree.

But it’s curious that if someone asks you to hang out, “I’d rather sleep,” is the least socially acceptable way to respond. Look at the shock on your friend’s face. It’s as if you’d said, “I’d rather play this boring card game while slowly hammering my own knuckles.”

They will plead. English is chock full of witticisms that cheapen sleep. “Sleep is for the weak.” “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

Remember that you can’t function without it. You can’t function without more than you think you need. You can’t spend time well with your friends if you’re sleep deprived. Your mood will be terrible.

Don’t value short-term pleasure over an investment that allows you to have better fun, for longer. Say “no” to people who try to take your sleep.

Experiences

You’re chipping away at something, no end in sight. The opportunity for a new experience comes along. You shouldn’t become distracted. You should sidestep this experience. But it’s so tantalizing to learn something new. The promise of supposed intellectual growth is too great, and you leave the first project behind.

This becomes a habit. Have a stack of partially-read books? Of course you do.

To succeed at something, you need to prune the tree of things you’re intellectually interested in. You may be smart and able to perch on all the branches. But deep down, it requires the profound realization that you have don’t have enough time on this earth to grow a leaf in more than one or two categories.

As Johnny Truant says in The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You:

You are here now. Eventually, you will be gone. You have but a nanosecond on the universal clock to do whatever it is you’re going to do. When that time is gone, it’s gone. Forever.

Accept that with your limited time you can only excel at a few things in life. It is painfully bitter to swallow. The single most depressing realization I have come to. But I realized it now, and not later.

I believe I can achieve any intellectual endeavor I desire. I believe I have the talent. But the cost, less often spoken of, is that to do even a handful of these things, I must ignore nearly everything else. For years, if not decades. It is bittersweet.

There are so many things I want to do. I want to run a successful business, to be a champion swimmer, to have Bach cry prideful tears from his grave at my Toccaten renditions, and to speak every language and raise good children and love my partner and write clean like Hemingway and have a sit-when-told dog and be the sharpest tool and most charming man to grace this Earth.

But a lot of things got to give. I reflected for a while. I had to aggressively eliminate interests. To shut any chapter is sad, but it must be shut. I had recently begun voice lessons when I knew I should be working on the Mandarin software I’d been chipping away at for a year.

After a few weeks, I wrote my vocal coach. “I’m sorry. I have to quit. I cannot be distracted.”

Jeff Bezos makes his hard decisions like this:

I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.” I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this.

I rarely have two equally salivating opportunities. I often have something that tasted sweet in the beginning and is now grueling work, and another, tastier, newer fruit. I’m hard-pressed to say “no” to it. But from now on, I will do it.

Richard Hamming said in You and Your Research:

You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

I won’t regret not becoming a great singer or athlete or a core contributor to the Linux kernel. But I will regret not having a nice family and meaningful work. So from now on I’ll say “no” to things that don’t further these goals, and focus on what I can, realistically, achieve.

How to say “no”

I’ve written about what to say “no” to, given my values. But how do you do it?

Saying “no” to a person’s face is difficult for me. It makes me feel guilty. I feel like the other person will leave offended and I might cave in just to avoid that. But if you learn to say “no” correctly, you can avoid these uneasy feelings.

Let’s take our imaginary friend, Gülay, as an example. Gülay doesn’t like hiking. She would rather be hit by a bus. But alas, her friend wants to go hiking with her.

Here are some typical ways Gülay could handle this:

The pushover

“Hey, Gülay. Do you want to go on a hike this weekend?”

“Uh. Yeah, I guess. Sure.”

Pro: She will never burn a bridge. Her friends love her ever-pleasing attitude.

Con: She will never have time for herself.

She is easily persuaded to do things against her own interest. Her friends will abuse her friendship, asking her to do them favors and spend time she would rather not. This is the worst way to go. Setting boundaries is everything.

The overworked

“Hey, Gülay. Do you want to go on a hike this weekend?”

“Eh, I’d really love to, but I’m just too tired [or busy]. I’ve been so tired [or busy] these last few weeks.”

“Come on, it will be relaxing to get some fresh air.”

“Yeah, normally I would. I’m just so tired [or busy].”

Pros: She successfully said no. Being [tired or busy] also excuses everything under the sun.

Cons: She appears to be in constant life-struggle.

Appearing to be overworked all the time is a worthwhile trade-off for some. I, however, enjoy appearing competent and in control of my life, and this behavior ruins that. It also cheapens the times when I am actually stressed out. It is also a lie.

The direct

“Hey, Gülay. Do you want to go on a hike this weekend?”

“No.”

“What? Why not?”

“I just don’t want to.”

Pros: To the point. Her friend will stop asking.

Cons: Her friend, and all her friends, will stop asking forever. Nobody will invite her again.

This kind of “no” is too direct in American conversation. Though truthful, the shutdown hurts the asker, implying there is something so off-putting that you would rather just avoid the situation. I used to do this because it is the most simple and direct way to say “no.” Needless to say, I lost friends.

The flake

“Hey, Gülay. Do you want to go on a hike this weekend?”

“I’d really like to go, but this weekend, eh.”

“What’s wrong with this weekend? Come on, it will be fun!”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

[On the weekend, Gülay doesn’t show up. She calls thirty minutes beforehand to say her back hurts].

Pros: She didn’t do something she didn’t want to.

Cons: Everyone now thinks she’s a flake.

Because she didn’t have the confidence to turn down something she didn’t want to do, she inadvertently earned the reputation of “flake.” Remember, trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. If she says “yes” to things she really means “no” to, she hurts her reputation.

The white lie

“Hey, Gülay. Do you want to go on a hike this weekend?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve already got plans.” [Gülay doesn’t have plans, but she can say so convincingly.]

“Oh that’s too bad, maybe next time then.”

“Yeah, for sure!”

Pros: Doesn’t hurt the asker’s feelings. She doesn’t do what she didn’t want to.

Cons: Is a lie.

You won’t face retribution from the other party – they believe you’ve got plans, and that’s a fine excuse. You’ll even be invited to the next thing. No harm done, right?

Wrong. The white lie would be a victimless crime, if it were not for yourself. It encourages bad habits for no reason.

You’re building the habit of lying to escape a trivial commitment. It’s not a problem that strains you to the point of compromising your integrity. So what will you do in a real quagmire after having trained yourself to lie your way out of small things? The first tool you reach for won’t be honesty.

I also dislike the white lie because you’re practicing docility when you should be practicing raising issues that bother you. Think of it as a low-stakes game on being more assertive: you don’t like something, so say so. Instead of scurrying away. You don’t have to raise hell, just bring it up. It will be less dramatic than you think.

The firm but caring

“Hey, Gülay. Do you want to go on a hike this weekend?”

“I’d like to spend time with you, but I actually don’t enjoy hiking very much. Maybe another weekend when you have time we can go to a bar?”

“Okay, that sounds like a plan. Hit me up next weekend.”

Pros: She stayed true to herself. She kept her friends. No cons.

This is my favorite approach. If you need to say no, try it:

  1. Say you value the relationship. “I enjoy spending time with you,” or “I would love to continue doing business with you” relieves the doubt of the other party that your upcoming “no” means you don’t like them personally.

  2. Firmly state you will not do this thing, because, truthfully, you don’t like it or it’s not beneficial to you (in business).

  3. Offer another honest chance at hanging out or another fair deal. This puts your money where your mouth is, showing that you care enough about the relationship as you mentioned in 1. to try to make things work.

This way, you don’t burn any bridges and you keep your self-respect. Unless your friend is abusive (if so, just burn the bridge), give it a shot.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear about what’s important for you to say “no” to, and how you do it. It’s perhaps the most difficult thing to say with tact. Send me an email: purohit@gmail.com.

Thanks to Michael Chu, CC, Kris Toivola, EC and my dad for their thoughts.

purohit@gmail.com

Software Engineer building back-end systems for ML tasks.

Previously: Stanford E.E., senior software engineer at 23andMe, lead software engineer at Recursion Pharma.

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